Lindsey Graham Tells South Carolina He's Ready for a Presidential Bid

The dark horse steals the show from Cruz, Perry, and Santorum.

COLUMBIA, SC - MAY 01: U.S. Senator and GOP Presidental hopeful Lindsey Graham speaks during the 48th Annual Silver Elephant Dinner on May 1, 2015 in Columbia, South Carolina. The event honored Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and was attended by several presidential candidates.

Photographer: Richard Ellis/Getty Images

COLUMBIA, S.C.—South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham used his short speech to a Friday night Republican gala to dispel any doubt that he will run for president.

"Get ready," said Graham, pausing for dramatic effect in front of a ballroom of Republican activists, donors, and politicians. "Get ready. Get ready for a debate that's been long overdue within the party. Get ready for a voice that understands you can't save America without someone willing to sacrifice and die for America. To our enemies: Get ready, because there's a new way of doing business coming. To our friends: Get ready for the America that you used to know. To Iowa and New Hampshire: Hello."

Graham was one of four likely presidential candidates who stumped and spoke at the state party's annual Silver Elephant dinner. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum preceded Graham by one-upping each other with praise for the major southern primary. 

"South Carolina changed my life," said Santorum. He pointed out his son John, who attended the Citadel in Charleston, and presented the flags before the dinner. Santorum recalled how his son contrasted the horror stories of kids at other colleges with the life of Citadel students, and how another son was so inspired that he, too, attended the Citadel en route to the Air Force.

The rest of Santorum's speech worked the foreign policy and economic themes he'd campaigned on in 2012, occasionally being overwhelmed when he walked into a controversy over social issues. In 2016, he said, Republicans needed to get serious about restoring the traditional family.

"I'm not saying this as a cultural warrior," said Santorum. "There's nobody more solid on these issues than Rick Santorum. I'm very proud of that, by the way.... but you want to appeal to immigrant groups? You want to appeal to people who are struggling? We need programs to stop penalizing people for getting married." That, he said, would contrast well with "a woman from Chappaqua from New York who when she left the presidency said she was broke."

Cruz condensed his stump speech to a few minutes, and took a far lighter approach than Santorum. The Republican Party, he said, had a powerful team of candidates ready defend the entirely of the Constitution, including the Tenth Amendment – “or as President Obama calls it, ‘what?’”. The Democrats, meanwhile, were saddled with a choice between “a wild-eyed socialist with dangerous views on foreign policy; and Bernie Sanders”.

Perry, who prowled the ballroom stage like a preacher, went even darker than Santorum, describing how America "could have destroyed ISIS" if a weak president didn't inhabit the White House.

"You know, the president may be satisfied with around two percent job growth, but I'm not,'' said Perry. "Our future is inextricably intertwined with our energy.'' He compared the state of America in 2015 to the malaise of 1979, and suggested that "we're just a couple of good decisions and a leadership change at the top away from the best days this country has ever seen."

Before the dinner, some of the potential candidates addressed the latest developments in Baltimore, where police who had been with the late Freddie Gray were charged for potentially causing his death. Perry told one Columbia radio station that "we need to have a conversation about why young people feel that they don't have the chances they deserve."

Santorum told Bloomberg that, while he hoped there was no "political pressure" to bring the charges, they may have been warranted. "The circumstances don't look good and look like someone should be held accountable to what happened there,'' he said. "I certainly trust in our prosecutors that they looked at it and made a determination and will let the facts play out in a courtroom.''

Not long after, Graham was onstage doling out praise to people he may end up running against. He thanked Perry for remembering the South Carolinians who'd fought alongside Texas in the past.

"We did," said Graham. "We will go a long way for a good fight—even though we may not win it. People remember those who fight."

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